The Hartford Courant
7:58 PM EST, December 17, 2012
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world." — Fred Rogers
Once again, an unspeakable act of gun violence has occurred, this time in our corner of the world. This time, the heinous nature of the crime seems heightened because its victims were tiny, innocent schoolchildren and grown-ups who dedicated their lives to teaching and helping them at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
As we try to wrap our minds and hearts around this one, as we try to process our disbelief, horror, anger and grief, as we try to figure out how we can explain it to our kids and find ourselves speechless, perhaps we need to start by asking ourselves how we can help now, and how we can help prevent this from happening in the future. The problem of gun violence is a complex, politically charged one, involving incredibly diverse issues, such as mental health, individual rights and interpretation of the Constitution.
In our increasingly polarized society, gun violence is also a subject associated with blaming and finger-pointing. But no matter what side of the political aisle we sit on, we can all agree that horrible tragedies like this shouldn't happen. Looking at a problem from a public health perspective may help put aside emotions and politics and allow objective examination of the issue.
Firearm-related deaths are among the top three causes of death among American youth. From a public health point of view, the origins of gun violence are many. The convergence of apparently too-easy access to firearms; a generation increasingly desensitized to gun violence and itsrealconsequences through regular exposure to slaughter during video games, movies and television; and mental health problems, particularly among adolescents and young adults, often contributes to deaths from firearms in this country.
These features are a common thread running through many of the mass shootings in the U.S. during the past several years. They have also been factors in many of the individual deaths among children and adolescents from firearms.
According to a recent report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 85 percent of all homicides among adolescents ages 15 to 19 are firearm-related. Recognized risk factors for this type of violence include regular exposure to violence, depression, drug and alcohol use, poor school performance, bullying and isolation from peer groups. Numerous studies show that the presence of guns in the home increases the risk of suicide among adolescents as well as conflict-related deaths and injuries and unintentional deaths in children.
The recent tragedy in Sandy Hook is a case in point: the shooter, a 20-year-old who was just recently a teenager and by developmental standards still an adolescent, used a gun registered to his mother to kill her, and then kill 20 children and six adult school staff members.
These factors may help frame our discussions as we begin to pick up the pieces. Hard questions must be asked and answered, not only about gun control, but also about our acceptance of violence in entertainment and about how much we are paying attention to the mental health problems that seem to be increasing among so many of our kids.
As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, teachers, health care providers, public safety officials, coaches, lobbyists, politicians and other members of the community, we need look more at research-based evidence as we begin a greater effort to help prevent gun violence.
Whether we are members of the American Academy of Pediatrics or the National Rifle Association, we can all agree that we should look to the helpers, and try to help. We can also probably all agree that we need to come up with better strategies to prevent tragedies such as the one that occurred this week in our state. We just need to start with the facts.
Peg O'Neill, M.D., is a primary care pediatrician and mother in West Hartford.
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